Stephen Greenblatt, Shakespeare's Freedom.
Shakespeare's Freedom offers an engaging reflection on the ways Shakespeare "exlores the boundaries that hedge, bout the claims of the absolute" to produce body of work that is strikingly allergic to the absoludst strain so prevalent in his world" (3-4). Assembled from Greenblatt's lectures at Rice University in 2008, the contents have not substantially changed. Readers unaware of this fact will be surprised that little analytical attention is devoted to freedom--a term enlisted to lend a semblance of unity to chapters that feel drawn from separate talks about other, related concerns* That qualm aside, Greenblatt's gifts as a sensitive reader yield frequent, valuable insights into the plays and some of their most elusive characters* Each chapter's swift, accessible treatment of an important concern across multiple works is also an excellent introduction for non-specialists to Shakepeare's artistry and originality.
Chapter one notes that the concerns of the subsequent chapters--beauty, negation, authority, and autonomy--all feature in "Theodor Adorno's writings. However, Adorno's writings are virtually absent from Shakespeare's Freedom, save for a broad debt to his notion of "aesthetic autonomy." This absence is strange considering that the book's only other unifying element is its claim that Shakespeare's distinctive alertness to the limits of power and individuality enables his remarkable artistic freedom. Against his culture's absolutism, Shakespeare exposes officials and lovers as constrained, deluded, or fraudulent. As a result, he "finds beauty in the singular, confronts the hatred aroused by otherness, explores the ethical perplexities of power, and acknowledges limits to his own freedom" (6). Turning to Measure for Measure, Greenblatt argues, "Barnardine's preemptory refusal to consent to his hanging and ... the duke's preemptory granting of Barnardine's pardon"--both of which defy realism--disclose Shakespeare's belief that "the dream of autonomy" is untenable even for the artist whom both characters emblematize (15). The rest of the chapter contains a superb analysis of Barnardine's significance, right down to the rustling straw of his prison bed.
Chapter two discusses the Elizabethan ideal of "featureless beauty" and notable exceptions, such as the cherished scars of soldiers and martyrs or the fashion of "love-spots" (43). According to Greenblatt, "Shakespeare's most intense celebrations of beauty repeatedly violate the featurelessness that is his cultural ideal" (42). The dark lady, for example, "is not more detailed than that of normative beauties ... but the departure from the [fair-featured] norm itself acts out individuation" (43). One can debate whether this particular example is unconventional, but Greenblatt finds stronger evidence in Bassanio's queasy description of Portia's beauty, Hermione's wrinkles, and Innogen's mole. These conspicuous departures from the ideal of featurelessness serve as "a mark of all that Shakespeare found indelibly beautiful in singularity and all that we identify as indelibly singular and beautiful in his work" (48).
Chapter three delivers a provocative, four-page summary of xenophobic sentiments in 7he Merchant of Venice, omitting any identifying references to the play to highlight its eerie contemporary relevance and the ease with which "Judaism and Islam succeed each other ... in the [play's] imaginative structure" (53). As Greenblatt examines Shakespeare's interest in "radical individuation-through-loathing" (58), the main focus is Shylock, whose suffering spurs fuller identification with his Jewishness and intensifies his hatred of the Christians. To stay in the realm of comedy, Shakespeare stages "an assimilation to which the enemy finally consents because the alternative is to lose his life and livelihood" (70). Shylocks hatred vanishes in a "reassuring, if uneasy, fantasy of conversion .... But there is no comparable reassurance in Othello: honest Iago's hatred has no limits, and he is already one of us" (72). Regardless, both outcomes--Shylock's strained absorption and Iago's paralyzing inscrutability--attest that radical individuation is unsustainable in human society.
Chapter four explores the extent to which Macbeth, Claudius, Richard III, Prospero, Cornwall, and other figures of authority convey "a deep skepticism about any attempt to formulate and obey an abstract moral law, independent of actual social, political, and psychological circumstances" (82). This discussion appeared previously in The New York Review of Books under the title "Shakespeare and the Uses of Power" (April 12, 2007). The only notable change is the expansion of the final paragraph, to which Greenblatt adds that "the terrible sense of limit articulated at the close [of King Lear] . . . has brought with it the strange injunction that is one of Shakespeare's most remarkable gifts, the simple injunction to speak what we feel" (94). While the chapter sufficiently demonstrates that Shakespeare could think freely against "the dominant currents of ethical reflection in his period" (82), it does not illuminate his conception of freedom.
Chapter five examines Shakespeare's interest in autonomy. About Coriolanus, Greenblatt writes, "Only by severing his relationship to nature and abstracting himself from all claims of kinship will he become absolutely autonomous" (110). When Volumnia persuades him to relent and spare Rome, that autonomy collapses, suggesting that "Shakespeare doubted that it was possible even for the most fiercely determined human being to live as if he were the author of himself" (111). This notion of autonomy seems unusually strict. If "autonomy in [Greenblatt's] strict sense is not a state available for any sentient creature" (111), one wonders why freethinking Shakespeare would associate it with freedom at all (however untenable), rather than delusion or self-estrangement. What Greenblatt reads as an inescapable human subjection that disallows full autonomy, Shakespeare could regard as pleasurable participation in the natural act of compromise.
In the book's final pages, Greenblatt does ascribe a more flexible notion of freedom to the artist, who is limited only to the extent that the audience is willing to pardon him. This ascription is the closest Shakespeare's Freedom comes to considering that Shakespeare may have understood radical freedom not as a condition free of limits, per se, but as an ability to judiciously exploit limits. Greenblatt notes the very different appeals for pardon in the epilogues of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Tempest--the former excusing any offense on the grounds of its dreamlike insubstantiality, the latter touting the audience's own culpability. But the question of "how ... [to] account for the distance between these two" only arises in the last paragraph, prompting a hurried and unsatisfying answer: "the shift ... from 'dream' to 'crime' is a measure of his [Shakespeare's] deepening awareness of the nature of his craft and the risks it entailed" (122-23).
The major shortcoming of Shakespeare's Freedom is its unexplored notion of freedom, which never advances beyond the generic observation that "Free ... means in [Shakespeare's] work the opposite of confined, imprisoned, subjected, constrained, and afraid to speak out" (1). Any interest in complicating this notion is lost in the centrifugal pull of the ensuing chapters. As a result, Greenblatt's astute insights into power and individuality come across as redundant proofs of Shakespeare's freedom from his culture's absolutism; they do not combine to illuminate what freedom meant to Shakespeare.
Reviewed by Wesley Kisting, Augusta State University
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|Publication:||The Upstart Crow|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2012|
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